“People want to be trusted and loved. I have found that believing in them is all that is required.” says Harbhajan Singh Senior Vice President & Director – General & Corporate Affairs, Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India, Pvt. Ltd. as he speaks to The Human Factor about his corporate journey and his views about managing people an teams.

What has been your corporate journey like and the challenges you faced along the way?
It started on 1st Sept. 1976 with Tata Steel. Right after high school I joined their three-year apprentice program. One and a half years after completing the apprenticeship I was made permanent. In order to be made a permanent employee I was required to join them in the category of ‘mazdoors’. So my first designation was that of a mazdoor. Till date I have not forgotten this and it has helped me to understand and empathize with people.

The journey with the Tata group was long and interesting. While working there I also continued my education. Finally in 1989 I was elected as a Union Committee Member and right till 2006 I was a part of the Tata Workers Union. On 19th January 2006 I parted ways with Tata and joined Honda on 9th Feb. 2006 as a senior manager. For most people it would look like a job change but for me it was a whole paradigm shift! The journey at Honda has been different but as interesting. I was promoted in quick successions and by 2016 I was made the Director and joined the Board of Honda.

Q. What were the challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
A. The most challenging part is trying to achieve good management-worker relations. Let me share some instances with you.
When I joined Honda I found there was a lack of trust between the workers and the management. There was hardly any effective communication happening between the two parties. Violence and manhandling had become a way of life there. It was a great challenge to gradually win back the trust of the workers, give them the confidence, educate and discipline them and bring them back on track. Those years were filled with immense learning for me. I realized that the best way to solve a problem is face it instead of running away from it. I also realized that one needs to spend a lot of time with the workers on the floor and not shy away from connecting with them. It’s also important to be a good listener, be compassionate and be genuinely interested in their welfare.
During those initial years I ensured that everyday I got a list of all my workers who had been admitted in a hospital and I always made it a point to visit them during the weekend whichever hospital they were in. Just a hello and how are you doing, and do you need any support from the management were the few words that helped me to connect emotionally with them.
Our first factory was in Manesar, which started in 2001 and housed more than two thousand line workers. Even today I can call at least sixty percent of them by their first names. That is the kind of connect and rapport I had built with the people there. The workers stopped looking at me as an outsider and started considering me as one of them. I had won over their trust and their faith. I always told them that I too had started my journey as a ‘mazdoor’ and was proud of it. This helped me in closing the gap. People want to be trusted and loved. I have found that believing in them is all that is required. I have come across many situations were the worker has been labeled as a ‘trouble maker’ and I took the risk of trusting him and gave him a chance, an opportunity to perform well and that worked like magic. These so called ‘trouble makers’ were convinced that nobody cared for them or would do anything for them. When for the first time they were given an opportunity and felt that the management actually cared for them I saw a complete turnaround in their behavior and attitude.
There was a labor problem in 2005 and neither the management nor the union could figure out a way to sort out the problem. While trying to figure out how to solve the deadlock I figured out that most of the workers in the factory are first generation industrial workers. They are deeply rooted in the rural ways of life and have the mind set of a simple farmer. For them fight is just a way of expressing disagreement and not of much consequence. They could not understand why a person needed to be suspended for a simple fight, as they did not understand things like industrial discipline. So my first task was to educate them about this new system and bridge the gap between their rural foundations and the urban industrial ways of work.

The other factor that works as a roadblock in achieving good management-worker relations is the culture gap. Most multinationals come with their own corporate cultures and industrial cultures. Not just their cultures but even their mind sets are different. They try to impose those cultures on the Indian workers, which causes a cultural conflict. So most often the workers feel alienated and even stop accepting the good aspects of the foreign culture. Improvement activities like Kaizen, Quality Circle are a way of life in the Japanese companies but in India we believe in short cuts and have little respect or patience for processes. If there is a problem we prefer to directly go and find the solution in the quickest and shortest possible time and not follow any fixed structure or process. So bridging those cultural gaps was tough. It took me almost three years to educate the workers here and make them understand and accept the various aspects of the Japanese culture. It was tough bringing the management and the union on the same platform and developing such an understanding that they started working as a team and together started pushing the workers at the ground level to adhere to most of the practices.

To build a connect between the top management and the workers I even introduced a ‘Pledge Signing Ceremony.’ Right from the top management to the union to the workers everybody including the media was present at the ceremony. The MD and the CEO of the company and the President of the Union publicly signed a pledge stating that they would do their best to ensure industrial peace and harmony, work together towards enhancing productivity, quality and customer delight. This pledge was then displayed around all the prominent places across the company. This whole exercise had one very big benefit. The workers started looking at the management as partners. This developed a sense of ownership among the workers and they started feeling more responsible towards the company and its objectives.
I can conclude by saying that from a place where no one trusted the other this finally became a journey of togetherness.
I would also like to add that the Japanese culture is unique. There are no cubicles, its an open environment, the canteen is the same, the uniforms are the same for everyone. It was totally different from what happens in other Indian companies. So it took some time for the workers to adjust to this new environment. For most of our new recruits this was their first job. Which meant they had no exposure of the corporate world, and which also meant that they could not appreciate the best that was being offered to them. However with time they gradually started understanding and appreciating the good aspects of the culture and started fitting in to the new culture. I believe we need to give people some time and space so that they can start accepting and blending with the new environment. This holds true for not just companies but also for families.
So yes I have faced many challenges but I have realized that if you genuinely love your people, look at things from their perspective and not just from the management’s point of view it becomes easy to overcome most challenges.

Q. What is the impact of digitization on HR?
A. Digitization is the new language of the world, and one of the major challenges HR faces is how to make the people digitally literate. The line workers of today are totally different from the past set of workers. Today all of them are on Facebook, Whatsapp and the likes and hence the speed of communication has increased tremendously. This has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The disadvantages are that people are connected with each other all the time. They are connected with their peers, with the workers outside, with friends, which cause a lot of distractions. Very often you may find someone chatting or watching movies on their mobiles when they are supposed to be working. I have realized that you cannot use force to make people change their ways. You need to educate them and create some rules and processes to encourage them to be more disciplined.
If Whatsapp is a source of distraction on the one hand then on the other it has its advantages too. We have a Whatsapp group of the entire workforce. In seconds we can communicate to the entire organization. Secondly I find that when we organize training sessions then the participants of the training session make a Whastapp group and even after the training is over keep sharing their learning, their thoughts and in the process become more connected with each other. So yes these groups help a lot but one needs to be cautious as some people may form groups and use that to spread misinformation and lies about the organization. I can say that technology if used effectively can be of great help and help in improving the efficiency of so many HR processes.

Q. How does one handle different types of teams and workers in the organization?
A. The most important factor to keep in mind while managing people and teams is we need to be very fair and transparent. We deal with a large variety of workers, be it line workers or managers, or contractual workers, but the one thing that everybody desires is to be taken care of by their management and their leaders. As management we need to keep the promises that we have made to the people and be just in our dealings.
For example in our company we try and treat our contractual staff as well as our permanent staff. I believe that while salaries are different, terms of employment etc. are different the basic amenities should be the same for all. So in our company both the contractual workers and the permanent workers use the same canteen, both have the same uniforms, and use the same transport. This makes the contractual workers feel equally cared for and they also realize the management is not taking undue advantage of them.
People are always comparing themselves with others. When they see that you have different standards for different people in the same set that is when problems start. But if you have very clear and well-defined processes and you follow them then there is no such problem.

Q. Your views on how Rewards & Recognitions help in motivating and retaining employees? A. The most important thing to keep in mind is that only the deserving people should be recognized and rewarded. A lot of times I find that rewards are bestowed on people depending on the connect they have with the top management, and not on their performance. If people are rewarded for the wrong reasons then the whole purpose is defeated and then retaining your best people becomes a challenge. Rewards and recognitions can only be given to a small percentage of people who really deserve, and when you reward them people should acknowledge and agree that they have been rewarded for the right reason. If that is not so and if people don’t acknowledge the appropriateness of the reward then it can have a counter effect.
Secondly I feel it’s also important how you treat people at the workplace. I believe one should always treat people with respect and love. If they know at the back of their minds that when they are in trouble the organization will stand for them it brings a feeling of comfort in their minds and hearts and that helps more than rewards in retaining your best people.

Q. How do you attract the best people?
A. One needs to have a judicious mix of ‘build and buy’. You need to decide carefully how many people you want to create from within and how many you want to bring in from the outside. For us the majority of our employees are the ones we have built within the company. We nurture them and make them grow. When you have more people within the organization that you have built it changes the whole environment of the company as these people have a huge sense of belonging and treat the company as their own and they also fit into the company culture almost effortlessly.
That said we also need talent from outside especially in some areas. So we prefer to ‘buy’ people for areas like sales and marketing. So I would say that it is not always right to get the brightest people from outside to be successful. Many times its better to not hire from outside but rather nurture talent from within.
Once you have decided the areas where you want to hire talent form outside then a very important factor that helps in attracting the best people is the brand power. People want to work for good brands. They want to first know the company culture, the facilities that the company gives.
All said and done it’s the word of mouth that finally plays a very important role in attracting the best talent. Being honest in projecting what you are, and walking-the-talk is what actually helps in the long run and goes a long way in attracting the best talent.

Q. What is the secret to hiring the right candidate?
A. First and foremost as a recruiter you should be clear in your mind about the role for which you are recruiting. Once you have that clarity then picking up the right candidate becomes easy.
Let me share an example. I needed a recruit for a CSR activity. A candidate walked in wearing a suit and tie but I could see that he was not very fluent with English and was struggling to speak the language but otherwise he looked confident with an eagerness to learn. He belonged to Haryana. I asked him one question “ Do you know how to smoke a hukka?” He said he did. I said, “ You are selected” He was shocked but of course delighted. When he joined he asked what he was supposed to do. I told him his main job was to go to all the village panchayats and chaupals, meet the seniors of the village, touch their feet, smoke hukka with them and tell them Honda is here and we want to help you. The boy became a big success in his own area. Later as we got closer he told me that he had prepared for three days and learnt all the concepts of HR and personal management for he was not sure what would be asked during the interview. Finally all that he was asked was if he knew how to smoke the hukka!
So I believe if you are totally clear about what you as a recruiter are looking for then getting the right person for the job becomes very easy.

Q. What is it that young candidates should keep in mind if they want to get selected? Your advice? A. My advice would be – be yourself, be natural, because if you really are what you are projecting and there is a need for a person like that you will definitely get selected. If you pretend to be someone that you are not, then even by default if you do get chosen you will not be able to survive. So I would say –believe in yourself, do not try to copy someone or try to be like someone else. You are unique with your unique traits and your unique personality. Build on that, work on your own competencies. It will help you build a confident persona and make you stand out and get chosen.

If people are rewarded for the wrong reasons then the whole purpose of rewards & recognition is defeated and then retaining your best people becomes a challenge.